‘He visited the cathedral, and sat in its chilled light, pouring like water from above. He reminded himself that centuries ago men had built churches, bridges, and ships, all of them a leap of madness and faith, if you thought about it.’
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
I gaze into the thin black crack between the two boulders. The board behind me invites pilgrims to take their own leap of faith by ‘tanai kuguri’ (passing through the womb) to pray to a turtle-shaped monolith hidden in the dark. I take a tentative step forward, before taking several more back in the other direction after the light from my phone dances off a thick, glossy mesh of spiderwebs. Not the most auspicious start to our pilgrimage, but we push on to Chikatsuyu nonetheless.
To be a builder of churches and bridges, or more accurately temples and shrines, in this area of Japan seems to require a doubling-up of a regular leap of faith. Every plaque we stoop to read tells us how these magnificent creations have been reconstructed over and over again due to earthquakes, fires or floods.
Even part of the Kumano Kodo trail itself disappears, enveloped by a landslide of trees, rocks and mud. A scar from the infamous 2011 typhoon, resulting in a detour along a forestry road.
But the rest of the ancient route abides. The Kumano Kodo is a UNESCO World Heritage trail and spreads like a web across hundreds of kilometers of the Kii Peninsula. No matter which route a pilgrim chooses though, he or she will always end at Kumamo Hongu Taisha. It is both the heart of this web and the spiritual home of Japan.
We are on the Nakahechi section of the Kumano Kodo. Around a thousand years ago Imperial ancestors began the pilgrimage tradition on this path, starting at Takijiri-oji, which marks where the ‘passage into the precints of the sacred mountains begins.’
Picking up from our failed boulder-test, we march up and into thick forest. The path is littered with gnarled tree roots exposed by over a millenia of tred from pilgrim, priest, royalty and beast. Straight edged stones jut out from the dry ground, hinting at steps worn back into the earth from which they were first carved.
Neither of us feel Imperial as we huff, puff and sweat through the close forest. Our bear bells jangle behind, limping along on my backpack.
The route is punctuated by a weave of history, myth and religion. We pass the old home of Jujo Akushiro, a witty and strong man who was given the name Aku (meaning ‘evil’) because of his valour, not for anything slanderous.
Ancient, ironic slang as comparable to a 1990’s ‘wicked’, ‘sick’ or ‘gnarly’ perhaps?
We climb the Three Fold Moon Hill to try to spy the eponymous lunar scene and gain ‘unfathomable power’. Unfortunately, as its the day time, we are thwarted. It may be worth a nocturnal revisit, given what is up for grabs.
There are numerous do-it-yourself teahouses, shrines and the occasional village on the way too. Friendly folk pop out of their homes to wave you on. We pause at the hamlet of Takahara to admire the uninterrupted view across sprouting rice fields and hilltops that bounce off onto the horizon.
The route continues as a mix of the same until we emerge into Chikatsuyu, our lodging for the night. We treat ourselves to a Kumano Kodo Ale and are met with a feast at our guesthouse Minshuku Nakano.
As the daylight disappears we gorge on delicious sashimi, roast fish and pork stew. It is the best meal we have eaten since we set foot in Japan three weeks ago, and that is no mean feat.
It feels fortifying too, which is no bad thing, given the 28km trek tomorrow.
If not a leap of faith, then certainly a test of endurance.
N.B. http://www.tb-kumano.jp has absolutely everything you need for any element of the Kumano Kodo. It lists various itineraries and you can pay direct in one go for things like lodging, luggage transfers and packed lunches. It really is a fantastic website and one that should be learned from!